A secret shared
The Jura or Franche-Comté: call it what you will, these rugged, river-crossed mountains bordered by Switzerland to the east and Burgundy to the west, are one of France's best-kept secrets. Had Steven Spielberg given the matter some thought, he could have--maybe should have--shot Jurassic Park in Franche-Comté. For it was here, some 260 million years ago, that the geological upheavals that wracked our planet for 45 million years reached the most violent pitch. In Spielberg's defense, we have to admit that the Jura's palm-shaded ocean where dinosaurs once splashed is long (long!) gone.
Independent, introspective, Franche-Comté tends to keep out of the limelight. A past sown with bloody battles, devastation, pillaging, struggles pitting the Holy Roman Empire against Burgundy's dukes, France against England, and the people against marauding mercenaries has bred a healthy distrust of those in power. With considerable difficulty, Louis XIV annexed Franche-Comté to the Crown in 1678. And the province has remained fiercely French: in 1870 the besieged town of Belfort resisted the Prussian army for 103 days. The colossal statue of the Lion of Belfort that stands in this French version of the Alamo honors the courage of Colonel Denfert-Rochereau and his men in the face of 40,000 enemy soldiers. In recognition of their heroism, Germany allowed Belfort to remain French, and did not annex it along with Alsace and Lorraine. Today, Belfort is home to the TGV, the fastest train on rails; and Peugeot manufactures its automobiles at nearby Sochaux.
Enveloped in immense forests (the name Jura may come from a Latin word meaning “wood”) Franche-Comté's small towns and villages are tucked into valleys or perched on mountain tops for protection. On the heights, farmhouses shelter beneath oversized roofs (the better to collect sweet rainwater) and behind thick walls that keep out the cold--and strangers.
Wealth from wood and water
Wood and water are the twin sources of Franche-Comté's wealth. As early as the fifth century, Christian monks cleared and exploited the region's forests, a precious capital which the Crown and later the state carefully preserved. Water runs, rushes, streams, springs, and spreads out into splendid green-tinged lakes (some 70 in all) like Lac Saint-Point in Malbuisson. Broad rivers--the Loue, the Doubs, the Ain--cross the Jura range, transporting the timber which has always been the region's principal resource. From time immemorial the Franche-Comtois have built their houses, churches, and furniture of wood, have carved it into toys for their children, and fashioned it into violins and oboes. Local timber furnished railroad ties, reinforcements for mine shafts, and telephone poles, too. Still, Franche-Comté is not solely a land of hard-bitten lumberjacks and sinewy sawyers. A centuries-old watchmaking tradition is perpetuated by generations of meticulous craftsmen (they even export to Switzerland!). For an example of their skill, just look at the fabulous astronomical clock on the cathedral of Besançon, long the capital of France's clockmaking industry. The city occupies a spectacular site in a bend of the River Doubs, where the military engineer Vauban erected one of his finest citadels. Birthplace of Victor Hugo and the Lumière brothers, Besançon can also claim one of the country's most remarkable art museums.
A visionary's city
South of Besançon, in the bucolic Loue Valley, Arc-et-Senans presents the intriguing Royal Saltworks designed in 1773 by the visionary architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux as the centerpiece of a rationally planned “ideal city.” The forceful neo-Palladian structures give a tantalizing hint of what Ledoux's monumental ensemble might have been. The saltworks, unfortunately, proved to be unprofitable and was abandoned in the nineteenth century. To the west, the busy provincial city of Dole is worth a visit: the birthplace of Louis Pasteur possesses an old town of considerable charm, reflected in the waters of the Canal du Rhône au Rhin.
In Franche-Comté le bon pays is so called because the climate is less rigorous than on the plateaus or mountain tops. On hillsides from Arbois to Lons-le-Saunier vineyards spread over rocky valleys called reculées in the local parlance. Arbois produces delectable rosé wines; there and at Château-Chalon connoisseurs seek out the Jura's remarkable vin jaune, a wine with a distinctive Sherry-like bouquet, vinified from the rare Savagnin grape.
When you take time out from your touring to enjoy the local cuisine, you'll dine on fine country cooking that features flavorsome farm-bred poultry, freshwater fish from the region's rivers and lakes, smoked Morteau sausages, and Comté cheese from the Jura. Poligny prides itself on being the foremost center for this firm mountain cheese with a subtle, nutty savor. Produced from the milk of the Montbéliard cows who graze in legions over the plateaus, Comté has been made here since medieval times in dairy cooperatives called fruitières.
Hearty food matches the robust appetites that travelers invariably work up in Franche-Comté, skiing or hiking at rustic resorts like Les Rousses, taking in the soul-stirring scenery of jagged peaks or the glittering waterfall of the Saut-du-Doubs, not far from Villers-le-Lac. Anglers, white-water rafters, hang-gliding enthusiasts will also find happiness here. As you can see, there are reasons aplenty to come and discover the Jura--even if it means that Franche-Comté won't be a secret anymore!
(Updated: 01/07/13 CT)